What is Anthropology?

Detail From Totem Pole, Vancouver
  1. the study of humankind, in particular:
    • the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development.
      noun: cultural anthropology; noun: social anthropology
    • the science of human zoology, evolution, and ecology.
      noun: physical anthropology; plural noun: physical anthropologies

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. The study of anthropology is concerned with the social aspects of our lives (such as language, culture and religion) but also the biological features that make us human (our physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history and evolution). In short, Anthropology has often been summarised into the phrase: "What does it mean to be human".

"[Anthropology] is less a subject matter than a bond between subject matters. It is in part history, part literature; in part natural science, part social science; it strives to study men both from within and without; it represents both a manner of looking at man and a vision of man - the most scientific of humanities, the most humanist of sciences" - Eric Wolf

An anthropologist is someone who studies people in any situation or setting, a common misconception is that anthropologists only study tribes in remote locations; a study of the exotic. Whilst some anthropologists may choose to work far from metropolitan areas, many choose to study people in urban settings far and near. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems, which is why many pursue careers in international aid/development. 

According to the American Anthropological Association, anthropology is traditionally divided into four areas: social (cultural) anthropology, biological (physical) anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.

Social (cultural) Anthropology
Social anthropologists study cultures and social patterns, with a focus on how people live in particular places and how they organise, govern and create meaning. It pays attention to race, sexuality, class, nationality and gender, as well as examining the similarities and differences within and among societies. Research in social anthropology is characterised by its use of participant observation (see my post on fieldwork here), which involves placing oneself in a context for extended periods of time to gain firsthand experience of how local knowledge is used to tackle the problems of everyday life. Topics of concern to social anthropologists include such areas as health, work, ecology and environment, education, agriculture and development, and social change.

Biological (physical) Anthropology
Biological anthropologists are interested in the origins of humanity, human and primate evolution and variation. They tackle questions such as evolutionary theory, adaptation and our place in nature, and to do this they study primates (primatology), prehistoric people (bioarchaeology), the fossil record (paleoanthropology), biology and genetics. They strive to understand how humans adapt to varying environments, how biological processes work with culture to shape growth, as well as bevaviour and development.

Archaeologists study past peoples and cultures, ranging in time from the recent past to deep prehistory. They do this by analysing and examining material remains (artefacts, architecture, landscapes and evidence of past environments. Material evidence, such as pottery, stone tools (see my post on the origins of stone tools here), animal bone, and remains of structures, is examined within the context of theoretical paradigms, to address such topics as the formation of social groupings, ideologies, subsistence patterns, and interaction with the environment.

Linguistic Anthropology
Linguistic anthropologists study the ways in which language reflects and influences social life. They explore how language practices define patterns of communication, create categories of social identity, formulate large scale ideologies and cultural beliefs and, along with other methods of creating meaning, equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds. Linguistic anthropology shares with anthropology in general a concern to understand power, inequality, and social change, particularly as these are constructed and represented through language and discourse.

Collaboration with people helps bridge social distances and gives greater voice to the people whose cultures and behaviors anthropologists study, enabling them to represent themselves in their own words. An engaged anthropology is committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research. Because the study of people, past and present, requires respect for the diversity of individuals, cultures, societies, and knowledge systems, anthropologists are expected to adhere to a strong code of professional ethics.

Here is a great video that serves as a quick introduction to anthropology and what it is:

[Image credit:
Detail From Totem Pole, Vancouver | Flickr - Photo Sharing! : taken from - https://www.flickr.com/photos/an_solas/7633093612/in/photolist-cCvANh-CrGmF-4Qq7Y7-3UEAYy-Pdph7-9FE1x6-7WRLxQ-noPP3n-5ab9bD-vYpWC-xWry1-jr5M2-Pdpew-6bsXtM-eBdJRw-29JNmX-4B5wd8-z63FK-ckjRFL-77umE4-jr5Pk-433VzH-qSQRo1-7KgTdq-qTa3SX-5dRwqi-qAdESi-ckjRAo-ckjRxy-ckjRwJ-ckjRvS-cQJ1K5-cQJ1FQ-cQJ1ym-ckjRCJ-cQJ1HC-cQJ1Dy-cQJ1vC-cQJ1rY-ckjRzf-4gH1md-ckjS2S-ckjS1U-ckjRYL-ckjRXd-ckjRVq-ckjRK1-ckjRph-cQJ1fb-r1mEGSAuthor: Seán Ó Domhnaill https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/]

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