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What Is Anthropology?

Britany and Erica at Field School

The word itself tells the basic story—from the Greek anthropos (human being) and logia (science), it is nothing less than the scientific study of humankind, from its beginnings, millions of years ago, to the present day. Nothing human is alien to anthropology and of the many sciences that study certain aspects of our species, only anthropology attempts to understand the whole panorama, in time and space, of the human condition.

Anthropology is, at once both easy to define but difficult to describe; its subject matter both exotic (marriage practices among Australian aborigines) and commonplace (the structure of the human hand); its focus both sweeping and microscopic. Anthropologists may study the language of a tribe of Brazilian Native Americans, the social life of apes in an African rain forest, or the remains of a long-vanished civilization in their own backyard—but there is always a common thread linking these vastly different projects, and always the common goal of advancing our understanding of who we are and how we came to be that way.

In a sense, we all “do” anthropology because it is rooted in a universal human characteristic; curiosity about ourselves and other people, living and dead, here and across the globe. Everyday, as we look around us, we all ask anthropological questions:

Do men and women have different abilities? Why?

Is it human nature to be warlike? Peaceful? What is “human nature”?

These, and thousands of questions like them, are part of a “folk anthropology” practiced daily in bars and on street corners, in newspapers and magazines, in classrooms and government offices. After all, all societies have explanations for why their ways of life are the way they are, and our society is no exception. But if we are all “folk anthropologists,” what do professional anthropologists have to offer? How does the science of anthropology differ from plain, old fashioned “common sense”?

The science of anthropology begins with a simple, but enormously powerful, idea: that any particular aspect of our behavior can be fully understood only when it is placed against the background provided by the full range of human behavior. This is the comparative perspective, the attempt to explain both the similarities and differences among people in the context of humanity as a whole. Anthropology seeks to uncover the principles governing human behavior that are applicable to all human communities, not just to a select few of them.

To the anthropologist, the sometimes bewildering variety of humanity—in body size and shape, social customs, language, religious belief, skin color, economic system—provides the basic frame of reference for the understanding of any single aspect of human life in any particular community.

The power of the comparative perspective can be illustrated by imagining that you have lived your whole life in a world with only one color—all your food, all objects, all plants and animals, all a single shade of, say, red. In such a world, you will obviously have no understanding of any other colors: of blue or yellow or green. But isn’t it also true that you will have no real understanding of the color red, or even of the concept of color itself, without the ability to compare one color with all the other colors of the rainbow?

One branch of anthropology—social or cultural anthropology—applies this comparative perspective to the study of human culture: the norms, values, and standards transmitted from one generation to the next and by which people act. Cultural anthropologists study human behavior by means of first-hand observation and interviewing within particular communities, and interpret that behavior by comparison with the results of similar studies in other communities. They may focus on particular aspects of life or institutions such as kinship, religion, art, or economics, or they may try to characterize a way of life as a whole. Cultural anthropology teaches us how to understand the internal logic of other societies, those other “colors,” and to make sense of behavior that strikes us, at first, as senseless or even immoral. We learn to avoid “ethnocentrism”; the tendency to judge strange customs on the basis of our preconceptions derived from our own society. We see the color “red” with new eyes. We can look at our everyday surroundings with the same sense of wonder and discovery that we derive from looking at alien cultures. In fact, while most people picture anthropologists thousands of miles from home in the midst of a circle of thatched houses, more and more anthropologists are training their sights on American society and applying the anthropological perspective to the study of our own culture.

As the science of cultural anthropology has developed, specialized branches, focusing on some particular aspect of human culture, have emerged: economic anthropology, psychological anthropology, ethnomusicology, medical anthropology, educational anthropology, and many others.

Linguistic anthropology is another of anthropology’s major branches, and it looks at the historical development of human languages and the ways in which that development can be used to unravel the relationships between different societies. In addition, linguistic anthropologists are concerned with the nature of language itself and the relationships between language, thought, and behavior; that is, the ways in which language and all the other aspects of human culture interrelate.

But the human story begins even further back in time than this, back several million years ago with a population of ape-like creatures starting down a unique evolutionary road. And the anthropologist’s comparative perspective can be broadened to include more than just the full range of human societies, for how can we fully understand humankind without an understanding of its place within the entire natural universe of living things? Physical, or biological, anthropology looks at Homo sapiens as a biological species—its origins, evolutionary development, and the biological diversity of modern human populations. Biological anthropologists study the natural history of the human species and attempt to understand the biological bases for human nature and our remarkable behavioral abilities.

Man, with all his noble quantities, with sympathy that feels for the debased, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of lowly origins.
— Charles Darwin

Archaeology studies material remains in order to understand and explain human behavior. Traditionally, archaeologists have excavated and analyzed the tools, weapons, pottery, and other artifacts that were left behind by prehistoric societies in order to reconstruct their ancient cultures. Today, archaeologists no longer limit themselves to the study of prehistoric peoples but also investigate more recent cultures, adding their insights to the information available to the historian through the written record. Archaeologists also work as specialists in preserving knowledge of our country’s past through Historic Preservation and Cultural Resource Management.

These, then, are the four branches making up anthropology as a whole: cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Anthropology asks what may be the most difficult and most important question of all: what does it mean to be human? And while that question will never be fully answered, the study of anthropology has attracted some of the world’s greatest thinkers, whose discoveries have forever changed our understanding of ourselves and of the world we create and inhabit. Anthropology will never lose its hold on us because its subject matter, humankind, is ever-changing and endlessly fascinating.

  • Anthropology Department
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    441 North Walk
    Indiana, PA 15705
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