What is Anthropology?
Politics and Activism

What is Anthropology?

Four Fields, One Goal - To Understand the Bizarre Beast called Man

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Anthropology.

As a senior in high school, I had little idea what this term entailed. The study of man? What the heck does that mean? I knew that the field encompassed other studies, such as archaeology and primatology, which seemed to me like my childhood dreams come true - getting paid to play in the dirt and hug monkeys? Sounds pretty sweet to me.

Some time ago, I rediscovered my diary from senior year of high school. After sighing profusely at my naive younger self's expectations of college, I noticed that I had put for my future major: Business and Anthropology. Although two years have passed since then, it seems to me comical that the combination came true in a funny, round a bout way.

While I started college set on studying only Marketing, I soon realized that pure business classes weren't for me. After a semester of only business courses, I found myself not intellectually challenged, bored, and miserable. While I did enjoy learning about business terminology and applications, I was not growing in my ability to think critically or write well. What was there to do?

The next semester, I took a leap of faith and jumped into the anthropology curriculum. Finding that the coursework emphasized less digging up dead people and more about understanding what defines humanity, I realized that I truly enjoyed this area of study.

My favorite class in high school was philosophy, and anthropology is a sort of applied philosophy - there are various theories to the universal development of human behavior and society, and you apply them to a certain sect of people to see if they hold true. If not, then the theory is clearly not universal.

The field employs scientific empiricism to the study of human behavior to understand universal qualities of humanity. By studying the variation of our culture, anatomy, and language, the goal is to understand the universal similarities that we have in common. There are four subfields of anthropology - sociocultural, linguistic, biological, and archaeology. These fields often overlap with one another, as researchers employ intense fieldwork in order to understand the qualities of humanity.

While I enjoy the challenge and rigor of my anthropology coursework, I often face incredulous stares when I tell people what my major is. In order to clear the air, I have decided to write a series of articles to articulate my experience within the discipline. This article is to introduce you to the four subfields of anthropology.

Archaeology

When you think of archaeology, you probably conjure an image of Indiana Jones fighting Nazis or of the glamour of King Tut's grave site. First of all, Indy is quite possibly the worst anthropologist ever, considering he desecrates ancient sites willy-nilly. Secondly, archaeology can be defined as the study of historic cultures, through the excavation and interpretation of ancient materials.

Archaeologists are a rare breed. In order to be one, you must have a love for the outdoors, uncomfortable situations, and old dead things. I have yet to take an archaeology course, but I look forward to learning about how to classify and properly unearth ancient material.

Biological

This branch of anthropology focuses on the evolution and anatomy of man. Biological anthropologists work a variety of living (and dead) matter to understand the unique physiology of humans.

Also called physical anthropology, researchers in this field may focus in forensics, which applies anthropological study to law, most commonly in the investigation of crime or death. There is also primatology, which looks into our similarities and differences with our closest relatives in the animal kingdom - primates. Biological anthropology also commonly overlaps with other fields of anthropological study, as researchers determine whether it is our innate physiology or exterior cultural norms that influence certain types of behavior.

Linguistic

The study of language encompasses more than just grammar. Linguists study the physiology involved with language-making, which may cross paths with psychology and neuroscience. Cultural linguists study the evolution of a language across cultural boundaries. For instance, the evolution of Latin into the various Romance languages still practiced today is a rich source of material for those interested in the development of language.

By studying language, anthropologists hope to understand how humans interact with one another through the use of symbols and gestures. Languages evolve over time and never quite stop changing, leading to an abundance of material to review.

Sociocultural

Finally, social anthropologists study the structure of a society - how human beings interact with one another in relation to our place in organized society. Meanwhile, cultural anthropologists review all the things that impart meaning to our lives, including art, music, traditions, etc.

These types of anthropologists practice extensive participant observation in the field, alongside surveys and interviews to understand what different groups of people value and those values affect behavior.

Sociocultural anthropologists may focus their work in many ways. For instance, medical anthropologists study the interconnection between health and culture, determining how societal values may affect the transmission of disease in a particular region. There are also anthropologists who study how culture affects politics, economics, communication, etc.


While the four fields of anthropology are diverse, the focus of all anthropology is the unique species of homo sapiens. By studying the different facets of human life, from the development of our biology, language, and culture, we hope to understand the unique characteristics of our collective humanity - what makes us different, but ultimately, what makes us the same.

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