Introduction to Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of humankind in terms of scientific inquiry and logical presentation. It strives for a comprehensive and coherent view of our own species within dynamic nature, organic evolution, and sociocultural development.

Anthropology has sometimes been called the most humane of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities—a designation that most anthropologists accept with pride.

Anthropology is the study of humankind in all times and places. Of course, many other research disciplines are concerned in one way or another with humans. For example, anatomy and physiology focus on our species as biological organisms.

The social sciences are concerned with human relationships, while the humanities examine artistic and philosophical achievements in human cultures.


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Anthropology is distinct because of its focus on the interconnections and interdependence of all aspects of the human experience in all places, in the present and deep into the past, well before written history. It is this unique, broad holistic perspective that equips anthropologists so well to address that elusive thing we call human nature.

While other social sciences have predominantly concentrated on contemporary peoples living in North American and European (Western) societies, anthropologists have traditionally focused on non-Western peoples and cultures. Anthropologists believe that to fully understand the complexities of human ideas, behavior, and biology, all humans, wherever and whenever, must be studied.

A cross-cultural and long-term evolutionary perspective distinguishes anthropology from other social sciences. This approach guards against the danger that theories of human behavior will be culture-bound: that is, based on assumptions about the world and reality that come from the researcher’s own particular culture.

Brief History of Anthropology

Its roots go back to the intellectual Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe and North America. As European nations developed colonies in distant parts of the world and Americans expanded west and south into the territories of Indians, it became apparent to them that humanity was extremely varied.

Anthropology began, in part, as an attempt by members of scientific societies to objectively record and comprehend this variation. Curiosity about strange people and customs in far off parts of the world is what primarily motivated these early amateur anthropologists.

By profession, they most often were naturalists, medical doctors, Christian clerics, or educated explorers. They asked such fundamental questions as whether or not the differences between human cultures are the result of genetic inheritance and if there is a relationship between the size of a human brain and intelligence.

It was late 19th century that anthropology finally became a separate academic discipline in American and Western European universities.

Anthropology and Its Fields

Individual anthropologists tend to specialize in one of four fields or subdisciplines: physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, or cultural anthropology. Some anthropologists consider archaeology and linguistics as part of the broader study of human cultures, but archaeology and linguistics also have close ties to biological anthropology.

For example, while linguistic anthropology focuses on the cultural aspects of language, it has deep connections to the evolution of human language and the biological basis of speech and language studied within physical anthropology. Each of anthropology’s fields may take a distinct approach to the study of humans, but all gather and analyse data that are essential to explaining similarities and differences among humans, across time and space.

Moreover, all of them generate knowledge that has numerous practical applications. Within the four fields are individuals who practice applied anthropology, which entails the use of anthropological knowledge and methods to solve practical problems.

Physical Anthropology

Physical anthropology, also called biological anthropology, focuses on humans as biological organisms. Traditionally, biological anthropologists concentrated on human evolution, primatology, growth and development, human adaptation, and forensics.

Today, molecular anthropology or the anthropological study of genes and genetic relationships is another vital component of biological anthropology. Comparisons among groups separated by time, geography, or the frequency of a particular gene can reveal how humans have adapted and where they have migrated. As experts in the anatomy of human bones and tissues, physical anthropologists lend their knowledge about the body to applied areas such as gross anatomy laboratories, public health, and criminal investigations.

  • Paleoanthropology

Human evolutionary studies (known as paleoanthropology) focus on biological changes through time to understand how, when, and why we became the kind of organisms we are today. In biological terms, we humans are primates, one of the many kinds of mammals.

Because we share a common ancestry with other primates, most specifically apes, paleoanthropologists look back to the earliest primates (65 or so million years ago), or even the earliest mammals (225 million years ago), to reconstruct the complex path of human evolution. Paleoanthropology, unlike other evolutionary studies, takes a biocultural approach focusing on the interaction of biology and culture.

The fossilized skeletons of our ancestors allow paleoanthropologists to reconstruct the course of human evolutionary history. They compare the size and shape of these fossils to one another and to the bones of living species. With each new fossil discovery, paleoanthropologists have another piece to add to human evolutionary history. Biochemical and genetic studies add considerably to the fossil evidence.

  • Primatology

Studying the anatomy and behavior of the other primates helps us understand what we share with our closest living relatives and what makes humans unique. Therefore, primatology, or the study of living and fossil primates, is a vital part of physical anthropology. Primates include the Asian and African apes, as well as monkeys, lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers. Biologically, humans are apes—large bodied, broad-shouldered primates with no tail.

  • Human Growth, Adaptation, and Variation

Another specialty of physical anthropologists is the study of human growth and development. Anthropologists examine biological mechanisms of growth as well as of the environment on the growth process. Franz Boas, a pioneer of anthropology of the early 20th century, compared the heights of European immigrants who spent their childhood in “the old country” to the increased heights obtained by their children who grew up in the United States.

Today, physical anthropologists study the impacts of disease, pollution, and poverty on growth. Comparisons between human and nonhuman primate growth patterns can provide clues to the evolutionary history of humans. Detailed anthropological studies of the hormonal, genetic, and physiological basis of healthy growth in living humans also contribute significantly to the health of children today.

  • Forensic Anthropology

One of the many practical applications of physical anthropology is forensic anthropology: the identification of human skeletal remains for legal purposes. Although they are called upon by law enforcement authorities to identify murder victims, forensic anthropologists also investigate human rights abuses such as systematic genocides, terrorism, and war crimes.

These specialists use details of skeletal anatomy to establish the age, sex, population affiliation, and stature of the deceased; often forensic anthropologists can also determine whether the person was right- or left-handed, exhibited any physical abnormalities, or had experienced trauma.


Archaeology is the branch of anthropology that studies human cultures through the recovery and analysis of material remains and environmental data. Such material products include tools, pottery, hearths, and enclosures that remain as traces of cultural practices in the past, as well as human, plant, and marine remains, some of which date back 2.5 million years.

The details of exactly how these traces were arranged when they were found reflect specific human ideas and behavior. For example, shallow, restricted concentrations of charcoal that include oxidized earth, bone fragments, and charred plant remains, located near pieces of fire-cracked rock, pottery, and tools suitable for food preparation indicate cooking and food processing.

Such remains can reveal much about a people’s diet and subsistence practices. Together with skeletal remains, these material remains help archaeologists reconstruct the biocultural context of human life in the past.

Archaeologists can reach back for clues to human behavior far beyond the mere 5,000 years to which historians are confined by their reliance on written records. Calling this time period “prehistoric” does not mean that these societies were less interested in their history or that they did not have ways of recording and transmitting history. It simply means that written records do not exist.

That said, archaeologists are not limited to the study of societies with no written records; they may also study those for which historic documents are available to supplement the material remains. In most literate societies, written records are associated with governing elites rather than with farmers, fishers, laborers, or slaves.

  • Cultural Resource Management

While archaeology may conjure up images of ancient pyramids and the like, much archaeological fieldwork is carried out as cultural resource management. What distinguishes this work from traditional archaeological research is that it is part of activities legislated to preserve important aspects of a country’s prehistoric and historic heritage.

For example, in the United States, if the transportation department of a state government plans to replace an inadequate highway bridge, steps have to be taken to identify and protect any significant prehistoric or historic resources that might be affected by this new construction.

Linguistic Anthropology

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the human species is language. Although the sounds and gestures made by some other animals—especially by apes—may serve functions comparable to those of human language, no other animal has developed a system of symbolic communication as complex as that of humans. Language allows people to preserve and transmit countless details of their culture from generation to generation.

The branch of anthropology that studies human languages is called linguistic anthropology. Linguists may deal with the description of a language (the way a sentence is formed, or a verb conjugated), the history of languages (the way languages develop and change with the passage of time), or with the relation between language and culture. All three approaches yield valuable information about how people communicate and how they understand the world around them.

The everyday language of English-speaking North Americans, for example, includes a number of slang words, such as dough, greenback, dust, loot, bucks, change, and bread, to identify what an indigenous inhabitant of Papua New Guinea would recognize only as “money.” The profusion of names helps to identify a thing of special importance to a culture.

Anthropological linguists also make a significant contribution to our understanding of the human past. By working out relationships among languages and examining their spatial distributions, they may estimate how long the speakers of those languages have lived where they do.

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology (also called social or sociocultural anthropology) is the study of customary patterns in human behavior, thought, and feelings. It focuses on humans as culture-producing and culture-reproducing creatures. Cultural anthropology has two main components: ethnography and ethnology. An ethnography is a detailed description of a particular culture primarily based on fieldwork, which is the term anthropologists use for on-location research.

Because the hallmark of ethnographic fieldwork is a combination of social participation and personal observation within the community being studied, as well as interviews and discussions with individual members of a group, the ethnographic method is commonly referred to as participant observation. Today, participant observation research has grown to become active collaboration between anthropologists and the communities in which they work.

Ethnographies provide the information used to make systematic comparisons among cultures all across the world. Known as ethnology, such cross-cultural research allows anthropologists to develop anthropological theories that help explain why certain important differences or similarities occur among groups.

  • Ethnography

Through participant observation—eating a people’s food, sleeping under their roof, learning how to speak and behave acceptably, and personally experiencing the habits and customs—the ethnographer is able to understand the culture of the society in which he or she is doing fieldwork more fully than a nonparticipant researcher ever could. 

Only by discovering how all aspects of a culture—its social, political, economic, and religious practices and institutions—relate to one another can the ethnographer begin to understand the cultural system.

The popular image of ethnographic fieldwork is that it occurs among people who live in far-off, isolated places. To be sure, much ethnographic work has been done in the remote villages of Africa or South America, the islands of the Pacific Ocean, the Indian reservations of North America, the deserts of Australia, and so on.

  • Ethnology

Although ethnographic fieldwork is basic to cultural anthropology, it is not the sole occupation of the cultural anthropologist. Largely descriptive in nature, ethnography provides the raw data needed for ethnology—the cultural comparisons and theories that explain differences or similarities among groups.

  • Medical Anthropology

While medical anthropology is centered within cultural anthropology, it is a specialization that cross-cuts all the traditional anthropological fields. Some of the earliest medical anthropologists were individuals trained as physicians and ethnographers who investigated health beliefs and practices of people in exotic places while also providing them with “Western” medicine.

Medical anthropologists during this early period translated local experiences of sickness into the scientific language of Western biomedicine. Following a re-evaluation of this ethnocentric approach in the 1970s, medical anthropology emerged as a specialization that brings theoretical and applied approaches from cultural and biological anthropology to the study of human health and disease.

Medical anthropologists study medical systems as cultural systems similar to any other social institution. They also examine healing traditions and practices cross-culturally and use scientific models drawn from biological anthropology to understand and improve human health.

Medical anthropologists have also turned their attention toward biomedicine, focusing on the social and cultural aspects of health care in their own societies. Their work sheds light on the connections between human health and political and economic forces, both globally and locally.

Careers in Anthropology

In all their professional endeavors, anthropologists study human experience and behavior within a cultural context, which means that they can be employed in a wide array of settings. While the market for academic anthropologists has remained relatively limited, opportunities for non-academic employment of anthropologists have expanded.

The demand for those able to analyze and interpret the ever-increasing volume of data for government, business, and nonprofits is escalating. As a result, a new subfield, applied and practicing anthropology, is gaining ground within the discipline where anthropological knowledge, methodology, and theories are employed to initiate or facilitate action to address a community or organization’s problems. This entry describes the variety of settings and roles in which anthropologists work, the training and skills required, the nature of institutional support, and typical work conditions for this profession.

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