Anthropology (from Greek anthropo- = human being + logy- = science of) is the scientific as well as humanistic study of the origin, behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humankind. Of course, many other disciplines, in the humanities as well as the social sciences, study aspects of human endeavor.
What makes anthropology different from other human studies is that its practitioners take an “holistic” view of the subject and consider the concept of “culture” to be in some way crucial to their study. Additionally, they consider all human populations and societies, from the present to millions of years ago, grist for their mill, not just western peoples and current western civilization. By “culture” anthropologists mean those things humans learn from and/or teach to other humans. Whatever the specific focus, an anthropologist often seeks to demonstrate how any part of a human cultural system relates to and influences the others. An anthropological study of economy, for instance, is likely to demonstrate how a community’s economic activity influences and is influenced by its physical environment, technology, level of social organization, customs, beliefs, and even artistic traditions, and how and to what degree it is learned by its members.
There are four main branches of anthropology, each varying in its scope and subject matter, but all more or less unified by their orientation to subjects within whole cultural systems.
Cultural anthropologists study the customs of human communities to discover processes leading to their similarities and differences. Those who live for long periods within a community and study aspects of the culture are practicing ethnography. Their descriptions of the community’s way of life are called ethnographies. When engaged in studying human society as a general phenomenon, anthropologists are engaged in ethnology. Cultural anthropologists study living communities, sometimes societies at the far reaches of the globe, and sometimes in such familiar crannies of our own society as the culture of corporations, long-haul truck drivers, and of prostitutes.
Anthropological linguists are interested in the role of language in human cultures. They may focus on the biological characteristics of language, its evolutionary origins and divergence as humans spread around the planet, or on the function of language in current societies. Their interests range from the description of dialects, oral tradition, music, poetry and myth of a particular community to the construction of broad linguistic theory. But unlike linguists from other fields, anthropological linguists are primarily concerned with the relation of language to culture generally.
Archaeologists are also guided by a concept of culture, but they study the material remains of human activity in order to infer the life ways of past communities, and to describe and explain the sweep of cultural evolution. Some archeologists study only prehistoric societies while others study aspects of recent communities unrecorded, or badly recorded, in historic documents. Some archaeologists simulate ancient technologies to better understand the remains they find, and some study their neighbor’s garbage cans to understand how sites are formed (and how the real facts of garbage differ from what people say they eat, drink, and use.)
Physical anthropologists consider the biological aspects of the human species, investigating questions about primate behavior, human origins and biological evolution, and the current biological diversity of human populations around the world. But even focused on human biology, their research is never entirely divorced from the concept of culture and the ways in which culture has influenced human evolution and diversity.
Fieldwork — research conducted outside the library and laboratory by firsthand observation — is one of the common characteristics of anthropological methodology.
Physical anthropologists may live in jungles following non-human primate groups from clearing to mountain, or may shiver in an arctic village to measure Eskimo metabolism and blood circulation. Cultural anthropologists may count mongongo nuts in the collecting sacks of San women in the Kalahari Desert of southwestern Africa, or tabulate a matrix of mutual support and obligations among skippers of the Alaskan fishing fleet. Linguists study languages around the world in order to understand language itself as a unique human phenomenon. Archaeologists excavate in caves and open sites to infer the nature and change of ancient societies, but also may video record the products and detritus of a Mayan stone worker as he constructs grinding stones to better evaluate archeological evidence. Anthropologists do put in their time at libraries and on the Internet keeping up with research. They also burn the midnight oil to formulate general theory and develop novel methods to solve research problems, but the abiding characteristic of anthropological research is the participant observer, or team of observers, working in the field.
Many anthropologists are employed by academic institutions, teaching for a living and conducting research to further knowledge in the academic field. But not all anthropology is academic. The study of anthropology emphasizes research methods, close observation, sophisticated sampling and recording, computer skills, team-oriented projects, critical thinking, and lucid report writing. These are skills in high demand by cutting-edge industries and service organizations.
An anthropologist’s expertise in library, field and laboratory research is good background for jobs in private firms, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Increasingly, those with degrees in anthropology pursue careers in government and business. Cultural anthropologists manage research programs and lead design development teams. Anthropologists are often sought out by business leaders to determine and explain the impact of changes in culture on business plans. They are also employed to analyze workforce problems and economic and cultural factors in foreign subsidiaries. In the field of Cultural Resource Management (CRM), archeologists work for engineering firms, environmental consulting companies, and run their own consulting businesses to evaluate and “mitigate” the impact of construction projects that threaten to destroy archaeological deposits. They also are employed by the Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service and other federal agencies in various levels of CRM administration, and by state, county and local governments to manage the resources of those jurisdictions. Physical anthropologists find work in criminal investigation as forensic anthropologists, and are employed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and by state and city health departments.
Last Updated January 3, 2022