What is Anthropology?

Totem Pole, Vancouver

To put it briefly: anthropology is the study of humans, past and present.

“[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 (quoting Alfred Louis Kroeber)

The study of anthropology is not only concerned with the social aspects of our lives (such as language, religion and culture) but also the biological features that actually make us human (our physiology, genetic make-up and evolution). Anthropology has often been summarised into the phrase: “What does it mean to be human?”.

An anthropologist therefore is someone who studies people in any given situation or setting. One very common misconception is that anthropologists focus only on the exotic, for example studying tribes in remote locations. Whilst some anthropologists may choose to work far from metropolitan areas, many also choose to study people in urban settings. A central concern for many anthropologists is the use of knowledge to solve human problems, which is why many pursue careers in international aid or development.

Working with people helps bridge social gaps and gives a greater voice to the people whose cultures and behaviours anthropologists are studying, enabling them to represent themselves in their own words. An engaged anthropologist should be committed to supporting social change efforts that arise from the interaction between community goals and anthropological research. Since the study of people requires huge amounts of respect for the diversity of individuals, cultures, societies, and knowledge systems, anthropologists are expected to adhere to a very strong code of professional ethics.

According to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), anthropology is traditionally divided into four areas: social (cultural) anthropology, biological (physical) anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. However, many anthropologists integrate aspects of several of these areas into their work.

Here is a brief introduction to what are traditionally recognised as the four main areas of anthropology:

Social (Cultural) Anthropology

Social, or cultural, anthropologists study cultures and social patterns, focusing on how people live in particular places and how they organise, control and create meaning. It pays attention to a multitude of aspects such as sexuality and gender, class, nationality and race, as well as examining the differences and indeed similarities within and among societies. Research in social anthropology is mostly characterised by its use of participant observation to gather data (see my post on fieldwork here), which involves immersing oneself in a context for extended periods of time to gain first hand experience of how local knowledge is used to tackle the problems of everyday life. Social anthropologists tackle a variety of topics including areas such as ecology and environment, work and education, agriculture and development, health, and social change.

Biological (Physical) Anthropology

Biological anthropologists examine human and primate evolution and variation, and are interested in the origins of humanity. They tackle important topics such as evolutionary theory, adaptation and the place of humans in nature. To do this they study primates (primatology), the fossil record (paleoanthropology), prehistoric people (bioarchaeology), biology and of course, genetics. Their aim is to understand how humans adapt to different and changing environments, how biological processes work alongside culture to shape human growth, as well as examining human (and primate) behaviour and development.


Archaeologists study past peoples and cultures, ranging in time from both the recent past to deep history (or prehistory if you will). This is done by examining and analysing material remains such as artefacts, architecture, physical landscapes and evidence of past environments. A variety of material evidence, such as animal bones, stone tools, pottery, and the remains of structures, are examined so that theories can be put forward (*) to address such topics as the formation of social groups, subsistence patterns, ideologies, and interaction with the environment.

*Due to a lack of effective time machines, there can almost never be complete certainties in archaeology. Just like maths or physics, archaeological theories are put forward to build an idea of the past because we can’t physically go back in time to check it out ourselves (although if we could, I’m sure we would be very surprised).

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropologists study how languages reflect and influence social life. They explore how languages define patterns of communication, help to form large scale ideologies and cultural beliefs, create categories of social identity, and help to equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds. Like social anthropology, linguistic anthropology holds a concern to understand power, inequality, and social change, particularly since these are constructed and represented through language and discourse.

I hope this page has helped you to understand what anthropology is without sounding too complicated. If you are interested, have a look around the site to find out a little more, or if you have any specific questions, feel free to contact me. Don’t forget to subscribe for updates (which you can do at the bottom of the page) to keep up to date with anthropological research, and check out Harris-Jones Anthropology on FacebookTwitter and Google+ too, thank you.

[Featured image: “Detail From Totem Pole, Vancouver” by Seán Ó Domhnaill is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

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