Types of Anthropology

Today we’ll be discussing different types of anthropology because each is unique in their ability to address aspects of humanity and each contributing to each other in order to create a more complete picture of humans throughout time.

As a discipline, anthropology studies everything about being human and therefore strives to give a comprehensive and coherent view of our own species within material nature, organic evolution, and sociocultural development.

There are four types of anthropology: cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical (biological) anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. These four types allow anthropologists to study the total variety present in our species.

Each of these types of anthropology may take a distinct approach to the study of humans, but all gather and analyze data that are essential to explaining similarities and differences among humans, across time and space.

types of anthropology

Table of Contents:

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology is also known as social or sociocultural anthropology. The study of customary patterns in human behavior, thought, and feelings. It focuses on humans as culture-producing and culture-reproducing creatures.

Cultural anthropology deals with the origins, history, and development of human culture. Cultural anthropologists often, although not always, tend to study groups that have different goals, values, views of reality, and environmental adaptations that are very different from those of themselves.

Cultural anthropologists note that culture is learned and that it is through the culture that people adapt to their environments; therefore, populations living in different places with different environments will have different cultures.

More recently, however, cultural anthropologists have also examined the ways in which culture can affect the individual and his or her experience. Cultural anthropologists stress that even though the behavior of people in different cultures may seem silly or meaningless, it has an underlying logic that makes sense
in that culture.

The goals of cultural anthropology, therefore, serve to make sense of seemingly bizarre behavior in terms of the people practicing the behavior. Cultural anthropologists are often thought of as studying people in faraway, exotic places.

More often than not, cultural anthropologists tended to study non-Western groups, especially during the early development of this subdiscipline.


Archaeology can be defined as the study and interpretation of past societies and cultures from the earliest of times to the present. By excavating sites created by humans in the past, archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the behavior of past cultures by collecting and studying the material culture remains of people in the past.

Using these remains to understand the past can be a real challenge for archaeologists because they have to infer past lifeways from what is sometimes considered trash. Archaeologists have to look at what people left behind.

Archaeologists are one step removed from people; they have access only to their “things.” The advantage of archaeology is time-depth; archaeologists can go back millions of years, often studying cultures that are long gone and have no analog in the modern era.

Using this diachronic approach, archaeologists can look at how cultures change over time. In addition to its value as a scientific subdiscipline in anthropology, the knowledge gained through archaeology is important to cultures and individuals. The past surrounds us; the past defines individuals, as well as cultures.

For some, it may seem of little consequence; for others, it is their very identity as a people. Every culture has symbols that it uses to remind itself
of the past, and archaeology is a critical way of knowing about that past.

While archaeology may conjure up images of ancient pyramids and the like, much archaeological fieldwork is carried out as cultural resource management.

Physical (Biological) Anthropology

Physical, or biological, anthropology focuses on the study of biological aspects of human beings, past and present. Physical anthropology is essentially a biological science; it often seems to have more in common with biology than with the other subdivisions of anthropology.

The importance of this subdiscipline in anthropology, however, is its contribution to the holistic understanding of humans.

Physical anthropologists focus on both the biological nature of, as well as the evolution of, humans. By studying primates, physical anthropologists are able to contribute to our knowledge about the evolution of our own behavior.

Examining fossil hominids allows physical anthropologists to study and understand the evolution of humans as a distinct species.

Human variability is another major focus of physical anthropology; physical anthropologists are concerned with human variation, such as the differences in hair and skin color, the differences in blood types, the relationship between behavior and health, as well as the distribution of genetic traits.

Using knowledge gained through such studies contributes to increased health and the decreased spread of diseases.

Linguistic Anthropology, or Linguistics

Linguistics is the study of language. Although linguistics is classified as a subdiscipline of anthropology, it often tends to be a discipline of its own, especially at large universities.

The task of linguists is to try to understand the structure or rules of a language. They look for different grammar systems and different ways
for producing sounds as a way to understand the language, which potentially sheds insight on cultural behavior.

Because language is often used as a way of categorizing people and as the primary way through which culture is learned, linguists can help trace relations between people in the present and past.

Linguistics also contributes to archaeology by helping to decipher ancient text through the rules of the modern language. The contributions of linguistics to anthropology are undisputed.

Each of these unique types of anthropology contributes to different aspects to the understanding of humans in the past and present. Rather than focusing on a single aspect of being human, such as history or biology, anthropology is distinct in its holism. These subdisciplines provide the basis for this holistic approach.

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